Robert Rauschenberg

American (Port Arthur, Texas, 1925 - 2008, Captiva, Florida)

Mother of God

ca. 1950
painting | oil, enamel, printed maps, newspaper, and metallic paint on Masonite
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  • Mother of God

    Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, ca. 1950; oil, enamel, printed maps, newspaper, and metallic paint on Masonite, 48 in. x 32 1/8 in. (121.92 cm x 81.6 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Fractional purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis and promised gift of an anonymous donor; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; photo: Ben Blackwell

  • Detail of Robert Rauschenberg's Mother of God showing a quotation from Catholic Review

    Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, ca. 1950 (detail)

  • Detail of Robert Rauschenberg's Mother of God showing variations in map types

    Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, ca. 1950 (detail)

  • Detail of Robert Rauschenberg's Mother of God (verso) showing framing supports

    Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, ca. 1950 (verso)

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A quietly beautiful collaged work, Robert Rauschenberg’s Mother of God (ca. 1950) is one of the artist’s earliest surviving paintings. Created by layering thickly painted areas with fragments of found maps, the composition mixes mechanical reproductions with tactile brushwork to yield a central circular form edged by both paint and paper. This combination and juxtaposition of materials blurs the usual distinctions between figure and ground, creating a tension between the mass-produced and handcrafted elements that is further heightened by the contrast of the cold, flat stripe of faded metallic paint across the painting’s lower edge and the fleshy white of the oil paint. The maps, which span nineteen American states and sections of Canada, were originally from a Rand McNally & Company atlas printed between 1949 and 1956. Yet while all of the cities charted in these fragments are identifiable, the collaged pieces act as an abstracted gridded backdrop for the painted white circle at the work’s center, a simple yet enigmatic form that suggests a face, a cloud, or a moon over a landscape.

After it debuted in 1951 at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in Rauschenberg’s first solo exhibition, Mother of God was lost for a number of years. When rediscovered, it was thought to be untitled. Rauschenberg later reconnected this painting with the title Mother of God because he associated that phrase with a circle. His religious upbringing gave Rauschenberg a solid understanding of Christian symbols and themes, and during the early 1950s he produced a number of works whose titles referenced religion, such as Trinity (ca. 1949) and Crucifixion and Reflection (ca. 1950). Though Rauschenberg never followed or established any strict iconography in his work, the white circle, seen through the lens of Christianity, may be read as a sign of eternity or motherhood. Mother of God’s religious undertones are amplified by a collaged advertisement for the Catholic Review, found in the lower right corner, which reads “An invaluable spiritual road map…” This bit of text draws together the title of the painting, the maps, and the spiritual allusions of the circle, yet it also walks a line between sincerity and tongue-in-cheek humor. With its interplay of paint, found materials, and puzzling text, Mother of God forecasts strategies and characteristics that would come to define Rauschenberg’s work by the late 1950s, and, in fact, occupy him throughout his life.


48 in. x 32 1/8 in. (121.92 cm x 81.6 cm)
Acquired 1998
Collection SFMOMA
Fractional purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis and promised gift of an anonymous donor
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
98.299

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maps, circles

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